Thursday, September 15, 2011

the search for the best dimsum

Warning to those people out there who are complaining about my food pictures: This blog post will make you hate me, and curse out loud.

On Ma's list of where to eat, she had Chuk Yuen Seafood Restaurant. We were getting to the end of our vacation, and I had to have some dimsum.

For many, many people in this part of the world, siomai is comfort food. We eat them plain with just a squeeze of calamansi, or dip them in a highly personalised mixture of soy sauce, chili and a drop of calamansi juice. We eat them with rice, or sometimes in a noodle soup. My favorite way to eat them is standing up, actually.

My grandmother, an excellent home cook who did not pass on her talent to anyone, makes a mean siomai from scratch. But Chuk Yuen's are better.

Oh, what is it about the Hong Kong pork siomai? They're not particularly pretty, and unlike the xiao long bao, are not really meant to be uniform in size and shape. But to eat one is to have an orgasmic experience.

The fragrance of the steam rising from the siomai is clean, light and smells of bamboo. Each morsel is just the right size to pop into your mouth. The silky wrapper hits your tongue and immediately, your taste buds go into high gear. You break the thing open with your teeth, and then munch slowly, tasting the different elements one by one. The tender pork, the chewy dried mushroom, a hint of shrimp, the roe's tiny explosions of briny goodness, all held together by a wonderful filament. It's that wrapper-- perfectly soft and pliable, but strong enough, without any tears or holes-- that makes a siomai. Without it, it's just a meatball.

Also comfort food for us is sweet and sour pork. Why can't they ever get this RIGHT in Manila? We have imported chefs, imported recipes, imported ingredients... What else is missing?

The Hong Kong sweet and sour pork is sliced to the exact thickness so that it's slightly (not too much) crunchy on the outside, while remaining meaty and moist inside. The bell peppers are smoky and sweet and taste like sunshine. But it's the sauce that's the star of this dish.

You'd think that anyone can make a sauce just by tweaking some ketchup, but let me tell you, it's very complicated and hush-hush. Every chef strives to achieve that balance of sweet without being cloying or metallic, and sour that's strangely not acidic. Add to it just the right amount of thickener so that the sauce coats the pork and the veg with a barely-there sheen. Oy.

The parents insisted on having the whole abalone-- one for each of us. Unfortunately, the only thing I DIDN'T like on this plate was the abalone. It was tough and salty and pointless, really. The bok choy and the brown sauce were fine.

If ever a dish embodies "healthy but yummy", it's tofu with mushrooms. Chuk Yuen's version is very satisfactory. I used to consume a lot of tofu and soy-based products, before I couldn't stand the pain anymore, and this one hit the spot.

Surprisingly, I liked Pop's order of nasty bits. I think it's innards or tripe or something. A bit gamey, but not unpleasant. I liked the taste and the texture, even though I'm still struggling to describe them. I would eat this if he orders it again.

I think Ma enjoyed this restaurant. The free sugarcane juice and free fruit plate were most appreciated. The service was a bit slow, probably because the place was packed, but the staff were all friendly and nice. Yez, friendly Hong Kong people exist now!

Verdict: Technically, the only dimsum we had was the siomai. All the dishes were OK, nothing outstanding. If I were in the area and I got hungry, I would eat there because I know I won't be disappointed or leave hungry. But I wouldn't make a special trip. In terms of quality, taste and ambiance, Chuk Yuen to me is indistinguishable from any other Chinese restaurant in a basement in Hong Kong or Kowloon.

I miss the classic green Coke bottle with the thick bottom. Kids these days don't even know what "coke-bottle glasses" means.

Chuk Yuen Seafood Restaurant is located at the basement of Hong Kong Pacific Centre at 28 Hankow Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Phone +852.27220633. They don't have a website! Check out shootfirsteatlater for more details.

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